Our brains hurts (well, a little bit anyway)

April 26, 2011 by
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA, Uncategorized 

I spent some of the Easter weekend reading a draft of a new paper from our social brain project, and very interesting it was too.

In important and systematic ways our modes of thinking don’t function well in the world in which we live : this idea has become ubiquitous and has a variety of expressions.

Derived from behavioural economics, nudge theory is premised on the idea that people sometimes find it hard to do the thing they want to do. Nudge thinkers like Thaler and Sunstein use the phrase ‘libertarian paternalism’ to describe the way their interventions are supposed to help us overcome the failings of our cognitive machinery (for example, our short-termism) better to enable us to do the things we say we want to do (for example, saving for retirement or being potential organ donors).

Recent figures show a rise in the use of anti-depressants and particular SSRIs (although we should be careful about exaggerating the trend) . It is unlikely that this growth has been driven simply by a random increase in individual pathology. The rise seems to imply that more people are having difficulty coping with aspects of modern life and therefore need the chemical balance of their brains adjusted.

A few weeks ago – amidst a great deal of publicity and public interest – Action for Happiness launched. Although its leading figures stress the importance of social environment in shaping levels of well-being, it is also explicit in the institute’s mandate that it seeks to help people create happier lives. Given that most of us presumably want to be happy, this too suggests that there is a problem not just in what, but in how, we are thinking. Action for Happiness endorses greater access to mental health therapies and also the use by perfectly healthy people of mindfulness (a non spirtual form of meditation which helps train your brain to operate differently).

Some people – like the Institute of Ideas for example – are deeply suspicious of all this. It is alleged that we are allowing the creation of a therapeutic state in which politicians and self-interested professionals seek to reduce legitimate social grievances to individual pathologies. But this is to mistake a symptom (official interest and intervention) for a cause (real change in people and society).

In my second annual lecture I suggested society may be entering ‘a period of neurological reflexivity’. By this I meant that a growing awareness of how our brains function, derived in part from neuroscience but also from a range of other disciplines including social psychology, behavioural economics, evolutionary psychology, would become increasingly influential in culture and policy, indeed in our whole idea of selfhood.

In order of priority I would list the causes of this shift as: new scientific insights into human nature and decision making; evidence that very many people (indeed whole societies) are not flourishing despite economic and technological progress; a sense that we may not be well prepared for some of the biggest challenges the 21st century is throwing at us; rising expectations with people wanting to get more out of their long lives in terms of functioning and fulfilment.

Rather than arguing that insights into human nature should be applied in particular ways or for particular purposes (which may be a little premature or even dangerous), the RSA’s interest lies in exploring how new ways of thinking and talking about human brains in modern society impact on people, groups and public discourse.

As we explained in an earlier paper, we are less aiming to ‘nudge’ people to do good, than give them the information which might enable them to better ‘steer’a course through a modern world using a prehistoric brain. Jonathan Rowson’s paper (the one I have just read in draft) suggests a focus on three areas in which insights in the social brain may lead to shifts in chosen behaviour; how we make good decisions despite our cognitive frailties, how we create the circumstances which shape our habits so it is easier to achieve our goals, and how we direct our attention in a world of over-stimulation and information saturation.

There are real challenges with this work. It is multi-disciplinary and complex and it is easy to get lost in a jungle of information. As an organisation committed to concrete innovation, discussing the foundations of consciousness can seem very abstract. But I am convinced that the broad topic of brain and society is going to become even more high profile and influential in the years to come and the RSA has an important role to play in ensuring discussion of key issues is accessible, rigorous and – where it is appropriate – with scope for practical application.



  • Carl Allen

    We think and we react, but not necessarily in that order.

    And sometimes we realise that we were thinking that we were thinking but only to find that we were merely reacting to a nudge.

    Ah, how we think of the wonder of modern life and all that women’s equality stuff.

    Now both wife and husband have to work, to acquire perhaps, that house and send the kids through university.

  • http://www.ellentynan.com ejt

    Thanks. I always enjoy RSA’s work – especially in this realm. With regard to the post, I find it fascinating that there could be a worry that engaging in mindfulness training would somehow be equated with a lack of need for social change. Numerous studies are showing that mindfulness and other meditation practices do seem to increase people’s happiness set point. I’d also argue (look at the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn, for example) that a desire for social change and taking action does not end because people become more mindful. in fact, I expect it’s quite the opposite.

  • http://Www.Umanity.org Ulrich Nettesheim

    Resonate with the notion that our institutions of higher learning, particularly technical disciplines like medicine, law, sciences, business all need to transform their curricula
    to reflect what we have learned about human nature in the last 20 years. Thanks for your blog. Ulrich

  • Ian Christie

    Thanks Matthew, all fascinating.

    I don’t often agree with the Inst. of Ideas but their concern about the development of an even more ‘therapeutic’ state (and businesses) seems to me well worth exploring. The therapeutic ethos of the postwar West is rooted in all manner of good intentions and insights but has many pathologies of its own. See critiques from eg Christopher Lasch, Philip Rieff, Richard Sennett; and the great analysis of modern American identities and values, Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah et al.

    The gung-ho view of the emerging tension between mental wellbeing and the technical and socio-economic systems of ‘Internet Industrialism’ is that we should accept the latter as a) unchallengeable and b) Progress. The answer is to re-engineer our minds to keep adapting to the C21st technosphere and all the cognitive overload that comes with it. But this supposes that we can do this – highly arguable – and also that we should (even more arguable). The technosphere we have is the product of a very particular capitalist order and absolutely should not be taken as some kind of Fate that we should learn to love and adapt to, body and soul, via techniques for cognitive re-engineering. I hope the RSA will examine the opposing case – for adapting our new models of industrialism to our actually evolved minds, even at the cost of renouncing or drastically reforming the new technological and economic systems we are developing.

  • Matthew Kalman

    Hi Ian,

    You make it sound like the cognitive demands we all face today are an illegitimate imposition by some ideological technosphere.

    I would suggest that worthwhile and wholly legitimate things such as good parenting, active citizenship, lifelong learning, good work, relationships etc all place increasingly complex cognitive demands on us. Quite apart from other issues, such as solving the challenge of climate change…

    Robert Kegan argues in his book ‘In Over Our Heads – the mental demands of modern life’, that it is increasingly becoming clear that relying on past tradition and external formulas is no longer an adequate mindset to respond to these kinds of demands.

    The (modernist) ‘self-authoring’ mind is what we need – but it is not prevalent enough, according to Kegan’s research findings – as Matthew Taylor mentioned in his ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’ pamphlet. (And the more complex, self-transforming, postmodern mind is as yet all too uncommon, despite all the academic talk – and inspiring models of organisational change, such as Chris Argyris’, that optimistically rely on its availability).

    The OECD came to the same conclusion about the need for the ‘self-authoring’ mind – in a major 5-year project on the competencies needed for the 21st century workplace.

    It is the modern/self-authoring mind, and even more so the postmodern mind, that have broken free of external formulas and will actually help to rework the technosphere in emancipatory ways that I suspect you would like to see, bringing more balance.

    I guess what I’m arguing is that you’re in danger of cutting off your (cognitive) nose to spite your face… ;-)

    I certainly agree with you that the RSA ought to examine the various opposing arguments, in this sensitive area…

    Matthew Kalman

  • Ian Christie

    Thanks for this comment, Matthew. I was thinking of Kegan when I wrote the remarks, actually. I don’t want to argue that all the demands made on our minds are illegitimate or sinister, but that there is a risk of trying to adapt ourselves to the pressures and demands of systems whose power and generality need to be questioned and challenged, not just accepted as inevitable. I am thinking here of many aspects of the Internet and modern workplace systems. These do not seem to me to equip us better to be ‘self-authoring (although they might portray themselves that way) still less to solve ultra-complex challenges such as climate change. As for Kegan, he makes the case that we are ‘in over our heads’ but does not, to my mind, establish clearly enough that his modern/postmodern mindsets can have the critical and emancipatory effects he wants them to have. And I would question the sharp distinction between ‘traditional’ and modern/postmodern ‘self-authoring’ selves. There is a good case to be made for the recovery and reapplication of many insights and practices from older cultural traditions. See for example the analyses by Fr Christopher Jamison in his books on learning from monastic traditions how to navigate the complexities of modern life and to meet the challenge of developments that leave us in over our heads.

  • Matthew Kalman

    Hi Ian,

    I couldn’t agree more with your point that we shouldn’t jump to adapt ourselves to systems that ought in fact to be questioned.

    But isn’t it largely only ‘self-authored’ people who have the developmental capacity for such vital questioning?

    These are people who can move beyond dependence and independence towards the interdependence that respects one’s own and other’s needs, negotiates multiple perspectives and engages in genuinely mutual relationships.

    So what…?

    So – amongst other things – we need to ensure that the interest in designing higher education learning environments to promote self-authorship continues to rise (Prof Marcia Baxter-Magolda in the US highlights various national educational reports there that illustrate this rising interest).

    And perhaps we need to think about how citizenship training is done too…?

    I’ve been discussing active citizenship/Big Society issues with Marcia and she points out that “a foundation of self-authorship is necessary for authentic responsible/active citizenship. I say authentic, because self-authorship means a person has internally chosen beliefs and a view of social relations that would support authentic engagement with others for the common good.”

    ”[Traditional/non-selfauthoring] people could very well be responsible citizens if the external environment supported and affirmed them for doing so. However, if the external environment did NOT provide affirmation, they would not be able to sustain their citizenship role because they would not have an internal compass guiding them to do so.”

    One of my concerns about current Nudge-style approaches is that they may do way too little to grow this internal compass in people, fail to help people grow towards interdependence and mutuality.

    [NB these are topics that I’ve been looking at with the RSA’s Jonathan Rowson – and hopefully something illuminating will emerge from this soon-ish].

    Re the ‘sharp distinction’ issue. These three labels – traditional, modern, postmodern – are really just a shorthand for a developmental scheme Prof Kegan has developed which has, I can’t quite remember, perhaps 15 or 20 different positions. Of course it can look a bit blunt when boiled down to just 3 positions. But it does enable us to talk about it all without needing a PhD in statistics.

    I suspect your point about recovery of older cultural traditions is correct. Monastic traditions surely connected with certain deep truths of human nature. Thanks so much for pointer towards Fr Christopher Jamison :-)

    Someone just recommended to me a guy called Fr. Richard Rohr, founder of the center for Action and Contemplation.

    He may be making similar points to Jamison…? I will investigate! ;-)

    As an aside, the century-old ‘Fourth Way’ tradition of Gurdjieff et al is one example of a contemporary spiritual approach that draws on many far older traditions, including monastic ones. Its introspective/mindfulness experiments have led to the conclusion that the average human has the delusion of free will, which is in fact largely lacking. The conscious, deliberative mind is only the tip of the (unconscious) iceberg. The brain is also a complicated conversation of rival ‘I’s, or selves etc.

    Interestingly enough, this appear to be almost exactly the view of the brain that neuroscience/cognitive science researchers now seem to have reached (it calls the rival selves ‘modules’). Eg See David Eagleman’s new book Incognito: The Secret Lives of The Brain.

    The Fourth Way folks do offer a mindfulness-based way out of this impasse – though the cognitive researchers usually seem oblivious to such introspective/contemplative approaches.

    For instance, the RSA recently hosted evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, arguing that “there is no “I” but that instead each of us is a contentious “we”.

    This multiple competing selves view is nowadays a standard view in numerous schools of therapy (quite apart from in older approaches like the Fourth Way) – though Kurzban told me he was unaware of any of this.

    What a pity!

    I enjoyed hearing Kurzban speak, but hope the RSA will invite more speakers who are somehow less constrained by the walls of their own particular branch of science.

    Matthew Kalman

  • Ian Christie

    Hello Matthew, and thanks for such a generous and interesting reply. At the risk of turning this thread into a private session, I will respond. I think we are really in agreement here, and what difference there is turns on how we read Kegan and whether his account of the ‘self-authoring’ person is useful or not (his analysis of our being in over our heads certainly is). I would resist the idea that it is only or mainly ‘traditional’ people who depend on external reference for ethical/social ‘steering’. This seems to me an impoverished and historically inaccurate view of what living in a religiously informed tradition (for example) has been like for many people, and what such a tradition supplies. Jamison is clear and brilliant on this.
    I completely agree that Nudge-ism is inadequate in helping people cultivate the inner voice as well as capacity to navigate external cues and conflicts. A key reason it is inadequate is the fact that a literally soul-less consumer capitalism – the shaping environment of the past 50 years in the West – depends on the by-passing of an ‘internal compass’ and a sense of the self as citizen-with-conscience in favour of desires modelled on external signals about what confers status and satisfaction. Someone able to sustain the internal compass and conscience is not necessarily a principled religious person, of course, but is probably quite like such a person even if wholly secular in outlook. I think all that causes problems for Kegan’s schema. But I also think we are converging in our analysis! It would be interesting to meet and discuss further.

  • Christopher McCracken

    I would be interested to see how the RSA link the research from social brain into the curriculum of its Academy. Emotional intelligence and the type of concepts flagged in the blog, and debated by Kalman & Christie, should be linked into mainstream education. If the thinking is to gain traction I feel simplicity is key – perhaps 5 points on a credit card with some RSAnimate? I was also encouraged by Ed Milliband’s commitment – which he made during his recent NHS speech at the RSA – to reshape mental health provision. Too often it is a hidden illness that prevents millions from reaching their potential. Doing more to prevent, treat and understand mental health is a progressive key that will transform relationships, improve workplace productivity, and deliver new ways to tackle entrenched social problems.

  • Matthew Kalman

    Hi Ian,

    Maybe it’s best not to jump to a conclusion that “we are really in agreement here” – as then we’ll just relax back into feeling we’re right, and the challenge, ambiguity and inquiring that can help us change will be gone! ;-)

    I would make one point about ‘soul-less consumer capitalism’. I’m not sure that it does in fact bypass the ‘internal compass’ – some people really love the glitz and the glam. The point, though, is that they can grow beyond this ‘superficiality’. Maslow would say that once these needs are satisfied, people move to more ‘inner directed’ needs.

    Actually, this issue is at the heart of a current big argument between behaviour change experts. The Maslow-based approach (eg Pat Dade’s Values Modes) suggests that if we aim to satisfy ‘lower’, materialistic needs then people move to on to needs that might seem to us more authentic, green etc. This approach does successfully use even materialistic motivations in order to achieve green ends.

    Others – eg Tom Crompton (WWF-UK), Tim Kasser – think that this is just going to reinforce all the wrong behaviours.

    I think it’s rather crucial that we get to the bottom of this – it might make for a great RSA debate.

    Re ‘Tradition’ – it’s a tricky word. It could merely refer to conforming to external formulas. It could also refer to following ancient practices that deepen our experience and challenge our received beliefs. (This might be a Kegan’s level 3 meaning of ‘Tradition’ and a Level 5 meaning of ‘Tradition’).

    And the US ‘integral’ philosohper Ken Wilber would nowadays argue that religious training relates to experiencing certain ‘states’ – rather than anything necessarily to do with Prof Kegan’s stages of development. I don’t think anyone’s managed to work out how states and stages relate! (Wilber recently admitted he’d been wrong about it all for 2 or 3 decades!).

    Maybe we should be chatting about this further, away from the list. Do e-mail me: [email protected]


    Matthew K